Heiner Goebbels

Interview with Daniel Felsenfeld

One of Europe's most inventive composers talks about his landmark work Black on White, postmodernism and why he doesn't write operas. Heiner Goebbels is constantly pushing the boundaries of what a "classical" composer ought to be. He specializes in music-theater pieces - such as The Liberation of Prometheus and Black on White - for which he is also the stage director and, to a certain extent, the librettist. andante's Daniel Felsenfeld spoke to the composer during his stay in New York City for the 2001 Lincoln Center Festival production of Black on White.

Daniel Felsenfeld: What started Black on White?
Heiner Goebbels: It was a challenge to conceive a piece which was not based on protagonists, not on stars, not on soloists, but on a calibrated number of musicians, a true collective - because the Ensemble Modern is really an orchestra whose musicians decide themselves what they are going to play, who's going to conduct. They don't have an artistic director. They make the artistic decisions themselves. So it was quite a good coincidence that these plans came together with such an ensemble. It was a commission by the Ensemble, actually.

So because they are a democratic ensemble, you chose to write a democratic piece?
Yes, in a way. They were quite involved in the process of creation, really proposing things that made the special, individual moments with each one of them. And there were smaller groups - groups of three or four - and we built it up.

I noticed that the speaking voices of the individual members were quite striking and you used them very well - particularly the trumpet player. Did you know his voice when you assigned the text to him?
These things were brought up in the individual sessions. We tried out what else they could do aside from play their instruments.

What led you to use Eliot and Poe?
This came very late, actually, after I worked on the images. Then I had a period of improvisations on how to direct and choreograph the members of the ensemble. After this, the death of my friend Heiner Müller, the writer, happened and I heard the tape of him reading Poe and included it in the piece.

There are lots of images, like an enclosed room, that were present both in the Poe story ["Shadow - A Parable"] and in your staging.
Yes, I had that idea pretty early.

It's a single space, a single event...
... and it's a group of people who have a history together. Just like the Ensemble Modern.

Did you compose for the personalities of the individual members?
Yes, as well as for the collective. There are a couple of unison parts, which go back to an experience I had with a heavy metal group in the 1980s. I was not playing in this group, but I worked with a speed metal band, and what I found out is that speed metal is so powerful because of one simple thing: they are all playing the same stuff. The drummer, the guitarist, the bass player, the singer, they are all doing a unison thing, and that's what makes it so intense. So you find, funny enough because there is no direct link, you find this notion in Black on White in a few passages where they all play unison.

How was it getting them all to play brass instruments?
That was an early decision - to socialize the soloistic attitude. It was great fun for them, because of course (except for the wind players) nobody had ever played a brass instrument before. You can imagine a violin player having difficulty getting the trumpet ready, but it took them all about four weeks to get the few notes out that they have to play.

Was it ever a problem getting them to behave?
Yes, but this is basically the work - to make them appear on stage in a reasonable and choreographed way, and not in a way that they are used to behaving when they play a concert, going on stage in a black suit and all that academic tradition from which they all come. This was one of the greatest challenges of this piece, how to relax them within this framework.

Your music seems highly political.
I don't consider it so much up-front propagandistic. I don't believe in message, so when you look for a certain political approach you might find it in the way I've produced the piece, or in my whole attitude about how to work with people, or in a collective portrait of a musical ensemble. Or you might find it in the different subjects of this piece - the story of Edgar Allen Poe and the reference to Heiner Müller refers to catastrophe and the belief in art as a social treasure. That's what the Poe story is about: when the shadow starts speaking, he doesn't say very much, but the way he says "I AM SHADOW" means that, through him (as a metaphor for writing, art, music literature) speaks a generation of lost friends, or of social memory; this is what this story, and the writing of Heiner Müller, was about. He often said "I am writing for the majority, and they are dead." There you can find some political messages.

But it is not an overt communist statement.
(laughs) No, not at all!

What about T.S. Eliot?
The Waste Land was a favorite poem of Heiner Müller, and he quoted it a couple of times. You might know already that that poem is a treasure of literature from the past thousand years. You find Webster and Shakespeare in it - and Heiner Müller did something himself that was an "over-painting" of The Waste Land with a couple of his own works. He has a poem called "Waste Land Waterfall," or another translation reads "The Spoiled Shore." You can see how he sees The Waste Land behind his writing.

So Black on White has a lot to do with the concept of quoting, or gathering, from a literary standpoint. Did you use any musical quotations?
Not direct quotes, except for the cantorial singing. But there were stylistic quotations. I don't consider myself as having a personal style so much as I have a method of working. I can work with very different materials, which means styles, but the way I work is quite personal. It ranges from ethnic music to pop or contemporary languages, or jazz. Other people consider Black on White to be a highly autobiographical piece, which I wouldn't necessarily [call it], but you can find certain things that might be.
How so? For example, the brass band. I had a political brass band in the '70s which sounded similarly bad!

In the piece, you had a koto player get "taken over" by the converging brass band. Did you have spatial considerations when you wrote that section?
That was intentionally supposed to move. If you did it in the concert hall, it wouldn't work, but with the movement. I love very much the privilege of working as both a composer and a director at the same time. Sometimes while I am composing I think to myself "okay, let's hold the music back a while and spend some time developing the image."

I especially loved the piccolo, which played a solo against the teapot.
That was my own personal teapot. I've had it for years.

I have that same teapot.
Really? The one that plays the C-major triad!? (laughs)

Does this piece have a life outside the Ensemble Modern?
That's a crucial question. I would love, in a few years, if other ensembles tried to adapt it, even a bigger orchestra. I wrote [out] the score, which enables any ensemble to do it.

Did you have to devise any special notation?
No, its pretty straight up. Of course, there are a lot of things you don't find in the score. What is funny about this piece - as one of the subjects of the work is collective memory - is that it's so complex now that there's not one single person who knows every single detail. The individual players know what they are doing, where they go, when do they put the kettle from this to the other side, when they pick up the ball etc. But there's nobody else who knows when they do it. It's only this group that can put it together.

So this is the end of the line for this staging of Black on White? Once the Ensemble Modern stops doing it, it becomes a different work.
Yes.

If someone else did it, would you want to stage it?
I would be curious to be out of it.

Would you consider yourself a theater composer exclusively?
No. I write orchestra music, chamber music, ensemble music. I have a lot of commissions for the future for big orchestras which have nothing to do with live theater. I started as a composer of incidental music in the '70s, but I was quite frustrated composing for the conventional theater, and that's why I developed my own language.

Your own musical language or theatrical language?
Both. I had to develop my own theater because I was unhappy with the role that music played.

Why not just write an opera if you want to work in a place that is about both music and theater?
I am not so in love with the classically trained singer. I think that, within the opera world, it's a very closed circle: either you are inside, and you love it, or you are a little bit outside and you ask yourself a lot of questions, like "why are they waving their hands so strangely?" or "why do the singers move so badly?" or "what is the role of the orchestra being reduced to?" I think it's a very enclosed world. Contemporary opera, in its structural conception, is old-fashioned and still connected to the idea of the opera of the 19th century. The stories have changed, the sounds have changed, but the structure has never changed. For example: the role of the orchestra, or simply answering the question "why should people sing?" or the belief in representation of a different world.

Is there anybody writing opera today that you think is pushing it a different direction?
Not that I know of. I like the opera Rosa Andriessen did with Greenaway. It is very 19th-century, but in a good way. It didn't shift the concept of opera at all.

Do you think you will ever write an opera?
I am thinking about two things: a new music-theatre project for the Ensemble Modern, which I will call an opera even if it isn't, and I am also considering an opera which I will write in four or five years for a Dutch orchestra.

Is the piece you wrote based on Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things an opera?
No, it's not even a big piece. I just used a few pages from it for the opening of Surrogate Cities, but this would be a nice subject. It's really a great book.

And it sings, in a strange way.
It does.

What do you think of the word postmodernism?
I think there are two uses. One is an unconscious arbitrary use of all art forms without serious criteria - I don't think that applies to me; I try to be very responsible about what I do. Especially now, because I think we are in an age where it is acceptable to use a lot of musical languages, so we have to be careful about what we do, even more so than we used to be. If I were a composer of string quartets in the first part of the 20th century, I would have been quite limited in where I could go musically. Now, with the sampler, I can work with every possible sound in music and quote and memory - so it has to be very well reflected. This is what makes composing today so difficult. But in a good, critical way, of course you could say that is a postmodernist attitude or starting point. You have to make a careful choice.

You work a lot with the sampler.
Yes I do, but not very much in Black on White.

It's just enough, really. It acts like another voice, very beautiful.
The sampler is the perfect instrument for memory. It's not an instrument which invents anything, which is why it was perfect for this piece.

You have actually written a suite for sampler. Did you use it as an instrument of memory there?
I used it in many different ways. I used it for memory, and for the possibility to include unusual sounds for the orchestral context; sounds that were not necessarily from the past but were normally excluded from the concert hall for different reasons.

Do you think the sampler is something all composers will have to reconcile themselves with?
Not at all. It's a very difficult instrument, and you can easily tell if someone uses it with knowledge and taste, or if they just started two years ago. I have been working with the instrument for 20 years now, and it is as difficult to use well as the violin. It's not just about pushing buttons.

One of the things I admire about your music is that it has remarkable taste and restraint. A lot of the music out there that might be called "pluralistic" seems forced, makes fun of itself - but you have a history with this music, so it sounds quite genuine. And you do other projects that involve music aside from yours, right?
I do theater pieces where I am not a composer. There I consider myself more a theater maker, a creator of pieces, a director, and then it can happen that I use the music of The Beach Boys or Prince, as well as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Everything is possible!

Your music seems worlds apart from the more traditional German avant-garde today.
I am not really in the center of contemporary music.

Because you are also a director for the theater?
Mostly because of the music that I write. It's not following the artifacts - materials of high complexity and abstraction - which you usually find in Germany.

What is the reaction to your music in Germany?
It's generally good, and from different audiences. People seem to meet from different areas: theatre, visual arts, literature, from contemporary classical or improvised music, so it seems I am lucky in that I don't have a hermetic audience, but an open one.

andante (US), 10/2001